Monday, February 12, 2018

The Great Society at Arena Stage

"The Great Society" is the second play in a duology about President Lyndon B. Johnson.  I did not see the first, I felt the play stood on it's own, but recognize there may be connections and continuations that I missed by not seeing the first. 
The play was done in the round and they made use of projections along the back walls, that displayed dates, and since the escalation in Vietnam was a large piece of it, numbers of killed and dead. 
I came away from "The Great Society" with a sense that Johnson was a incredible negotiator, that, as President's often do, he was juggling trying to make the best decision about Vietnam, getting Medicare and other social programs expanded, and trying to plan the best timing for voting rights and defense of civil rights.  As such Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Bobby Kennedy were both finding themselves trying to live up the promises of those they represent and a little less sympathetic to issues of timing.  
It's hard to cover such a long period of time with so many things that are both known and thought to be known by the audience. 
And it's tough watching a play where there is a President with such a sense of the limited time he has available to get the maximum good done before the pendulum shifts and not see parallels. There was one that felt a little on the nose, but that is probably a your mileage will vary situation.  
As the dates progressed on the back wall, I had been getting myself ready for the assassinations of King and Kennedy, so was a little surprised at the choice to revisit that only in reflection after the election of Nixon.  Certainly, the play was about Johnson, but as Johnson came into the presidency through assassination, as they had been two prominent characters in the show, it seemed an odd choice.  
While the cast was wonderful, there were a number of flubs the night I saw it. Nothing that detracted from understanding but enough that it was noticeable.  The set and set design were really wonderfully used in this production, including the use of fake blood and fire in some dramatic ways.